To Professor Hou Yiling
The Transient Sublime and Mortality in “Ode to a Nightingale”
Composed during the most creative period in Keats’s brief poetic career, “Ode to a Nightingale” has long been regarded as one of the most refined works of his poetry. Previous criticism has comprehensively explored its themes of nature, beauty and mortality, as well as its demonstration of Keats’s notion of Negative Capability. But based on my research, few critical reviews have touched upon the point which I find clearly suggest itself in this poem: that the poet’s experience here depicted is not merely an escape into the realm of ideal beauty, but also an intoxication ...view middle of the document...
In trying to grasp at the sublime, the mind loses consciousness, and the spirit is able to grasp it but only temporarily. With an overwhelming power to provoke both terror and ecstasy, the sublime humbles the subject and elevates his spirits at the same time. Through an experience of the sublime, one seeks to realize a union of man and nature, which is indeed the ideal of Romanticism.
The reason why most critics do not associate Keats’s experience in “Ode to a Nightingale” with the sublime probably lies in the absence of conventional natural imageries that are most often related to the sentiment. It is believed by many that the sublime is normally triggered by natural objects such as seas, mountains and high rocks that demonstrate an awesome kind of magnificence, which are all lacking in the vision depicted in “Ode to a Nightingale”. Nevertheless, although a nightingale’s song is not traditionally considered exalted enough to evoke feelings of the sublime, the one featured in this poem appears an extraordinary vocal beauty that does possess the thrilling qualities of the sublime object: it is an inspiring natural phenomenon with an intoxicating power to arouse both awe and anxiety, stimulating the poet’s desire to unite with it and with nature as a whole. With this key supposition assured, the following passages will be devoted to a detailed analysis of Keats’s experience of the sublime represented in the poem.
The poem opens with a painful description of the poet’s feelings while listening to the nightingale’s song: his heart aches and his sense pains as though he has taken poison or drugs. But his pain stems not from grief, which we learn by surprise, but from an excess of happiness occasioned by the bird’s song which is “too happy” to be endured. This ambivalent mixture of pain and pleasure is the characteristic mark of the sublime, which is further heightened by the sharp contrast between the poet’s painful numbness and the bird’s god-like rapture and freedom.
The poet then calls for wine, “a beaker full of the warm South” which may carry him into a state of the sublime where identification with the nightingale and union with nature are accessible, in order to escape “the weariness, the fever, and the fret” of human lives, where youth dies early and even love does not last long. But then he changes his mind: he will fly to the nightingale not through the artificial device of alcoholic intoxication (“Bacchus and his pards”), but through the agency of poetic imagination (“the viewless wings of Poesy”).
For a moment the poet succeeds, exclaiming that he is “already with thee”. Imagination leads him into a trance, where he loses consciousness while arriving at the climax of the sublime. In his most exalted poetic vision, he beholds the holy lustre of “the Queen-Moon” and “her starry Fays” in the tender night sky. But soon common sense abruptly obtrudes, pulling the poet from up amid the stars down to the earthly gloom where “there is no light”....